Growing up Bi-Racial in Canada. What does “bi-racial” even mean? Well, the good ‘ol Oxford Dictionary defines it as an individual who is “concerning or containing members of two racial groups.” A caucasian mother, Black (biological) father. Check. Okay, if we’re still using the antiquated term “race”, then sure, if the shoe fits, right? I’ve been called a lot of other things growing up bi-racial in Canada: Mulatto; Black; Cafe au Lait; Mocha; Mixed; Oh and my favourites, nigger, mongrel, coon, blackie. Funny, I was never mistaken for being ‘white’. Might have been something to do with my darker complexion, full lips, and curly hair. Might have something to do with living in a world where humans still (and probably always) make judgements with their eyes. Where they flippantly cast labels upon other humans, then labels transform into gospel. But it’s just a label right? Sticks and stones. But sometimes, labels translate into actions and that’s when things get a little….interesting.
I spent most of my childhood on the Canadian West Coast, not a bad place if you ask me. During my early elementary days I lived on a military base on Vancouver Island. School was fun. Being different was fun. I was a novelty. The only ‘kid of colour’ in a sea of ‘colourlessness’. At least that’s what it looked like through the eyes of a 7 year old. I was never ostracized. When my party invitations went out, everyone came. Mothers didn’t point and shuffle their children off the playground in hushed whispers, but instead, invited me over for play dates and told my mother what a bright, polite little girl I was. There weren’t even questions when my ‘white’ father came on school field trips as a chaperon, or when my blonde haired, blue-eyed baby brother teetered into the room to see what us girls were up to. Life was simpler then. I was accepted, loved and cherished not only by my family, but my whole community. I had absolutely no concept of racism until the age of 10. Nature vs Nurture right?
My family was suddenly re-posted, and a brief stint on the prairies taught me a cold, hard lesson. I was no longer the novelty. I was a scourge and different meant bad. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can still hear the chants of ornery 10 year olds: “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Grandma bought a gun. Pulled the trigger, shot a nigger, boy, did Grandma run.” It was the first time I had ever heard the “N” word. I laughed along with them, but the word stuck. I remember seeing the word in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a year or so before, but never gave it a second thought. So, I climbed the stairs to the school library, asking the librarian where I could find a dictionary and I looked it up. Basically, it was a 17th century word that meant “black person.” Hmmmm. Ten year old me didn’t think it was so bad. I snapped the book shut and life went on. But merciless teasing ensued, even some of the teachers joined in. I looked at myself for the first time and wished that my skin colour would rub off. My self esteem was decimated, my heart broken, and the light in my eyes gone. My parents acted quickly and decided life on the West Coast would be healthier, and the nightmare ended. For now.
I relocated back to Vancouver in time to finish elementary school and start High School but I was no longer that happy-go-lucky kid. Racism changed me, but not in the way you think. As an adolescent, the discrimination wasn’t as obvious. Teenagers are more clever about it. I felt like a stereotyped monkey. Kids in school would goad me on to do impressions of their favourite black television characters. Boys would whisper at the back of the class that “if I was just a little more white chocolate and a little less dark.” My hair was a regular topic of discussion because I wore it in braids, and not because I wanted to, but because I was a mixed kid in a white family and I didn’t know how to care for my massive afro. Braids were convenient. I was of course expected to excel at Basketball, and when a fellow classmate in social studies class snapped up my Sony Walkman and heard Guns n’ Roses ‘Welcome to the Jungle‘ blast through the earphones instead of Salt n’ Peppa, she teased me mercilessly. The dilemma was I was a mixed kid, who looked Black, who liked “white things”, but to the Black and mixed kids, I wasn’t holding up my end of the Black bargain. You certainly wouldn’t have gained any “street cred” hanging out with me (though many tried), and the bottom line was this; I didn’t act Black enough and I was reminded of this almost daily.
Looking back as an adult, I can laugh about the absurdity of it all. Like many mixed women, I eventually came into my own, found my identity and learned to embrace my ethnicity (and my awesome tan!) And while I certainly did face my fair share of racially charged moments, I was always grateful that I didn’t grow up in a neighbourhood where I had to worry about the police mistaking me for anything other than an innocent kid doing kid things. I’m still treated like a bit of a unicorn the lines between innocent curiosity and malicious ‘othering’ are often blurred. I still encounter random strangers who feel it perfectly acceptable to tug on my curls while standing in line at Starbucks. Or those who repeatedly ask me ‘where I’m from’ when I tell them my mother is Canadian and my father American. “Yeah, but where are you from?” My answer is always: I’m an anthropologist. We all came from Africa. My ancestors may have been a little late to the party (and not by choice), but we all made the trip.
Race does not exist. It is a social construct. And once we can all grasp that, we can stop giving power to those who try and wield this power over the masses. Don’t let others ‘other’ you. Stand in your place and own who you are, whomever that may be.